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Becoming a Conference Chair

By Nathalie Vermeulen, President, Vrije Univ. Brussel Chapter

It all started with a project launched at our university (Vrije Universiteit Brussel) that aims to get photonics engineering students acquainted with the business aspects of research and industry and to train economics/marketing students in their understanding of photonics technology development. This project, which was conceptualized by Prof. Marc Goldchstein (business engineering) together with Prof. Hugo Thienpont (photonics engineering), triggered so many positive reactions from the students that we – the SPIE Brussels Student Chapter – came up with the idea of organizing a workshop on “Entrepreneurship in Photonics for Students and Young Professionals” at the SPIE Photonics Europe symposium in Strasbourg. After discussing our idea with Dirk Fabian from SPIE Student Services, it was agreed that SPIE would take care of the logistic arrangements, while our chapter would compose the workshop program.

Together with our chapter’s advisor Hugo Thienpont, we decided to invite for the workshop four top-level speakers experienced in the field of entrepreneurship in photonics, namely Dr. Kathleen Perkins (formerly CEO of Breault Research Organisation), Prof. Frank Wyrowski (CEO of LightTrans and professor at University of Jena), Prof. March Goldchstein (member of several start-ups and professor at Vrije Universiteit Brussel) and Dr. Gary Colquhoun (CEO of Fibre Photonics and responsible for Industry Development at SPIE Europe). When contacting these four speakers, we experienced how important it really is to provide detailed information on the purpose of the event you want to organize, on the audience you are targeting, on what you expect from the speakers, and on the practical organization of the event. Making clear agreements right from the start is absolutely crucial! Furthermore, we also exchanged long emails with Dirk to discuss details like how the preregistration for the workshop should be organized, in what ways we could publicise the event, how we could best serve the SPIE student community, and how we could thank the speakers for their contributions.

After each of the four presentations, attendees had the opportunity to ask questions.

The evening before the workshop, Dirk, our chapter’s vice-president Sara Van Overmeire and I had a last working dinner in Strasbourg to make the final arrangements for the workshop (despite the wine tasting, we managed to finish off our check lists!). Finally, on the day of the event (Monday April 7), we met for the first time in real life the four speakers we had invited. It was a pleasure to hear that they were really looking forward to the workshop. And the workshop turned out to be a great success! The four talks were very different, had complementary content, were well aligned and were all of a very high level. Furthermore, the audience, which consisted of as many as 70 attendees, was truly interested and asked numerous questions, which made my job of “moderator” very lively. And the people who wanted to have a more in depth discussion with the speakers had plenty of time to do so at the very pleasant and tasty dinner that followed upon the workshop and that was offered by SPIE.

Organizing such a workshop has been a very valuable experience to us, since we have learnt e.g. what one certainly has to keep in mind when composing the event program, what is the best approach for inviting speakers and for publicizing an event, and also how to facilitate a workshop. We believe this experience will be of use not only in the framework of our academic research careers but essentially in any working environment (i.e. also in industry for example) where leadership is needed as a necessary ingredient for success.